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Chicago Teachers Union President discusses defending Chicago’s Public Schools

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JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: The city of Chicago is planning to close 61 schools this year, arguing they are half-empty and too costly to keep open. But parents, teachers, and students are fighting back. The Real News recently sat down with a woman helping lead these efforts, Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

We started off by asking her about comments by former Obama chief of staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who said the closings are a done deal.


KAREN LEWIS, PRESIDENT, CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION: Well, I think it’s pretty indicative of the fact that he has absolutely no respect for the law. There are supposed to be hearings about each individual school and what the merits are, and that the board of education should take those kinds of hearings into consideration. And for him to say this is what he’s going to do, I mean, it just shows a depth of contempt for people, and especially people that live in areas that do not have very wealthy and connected and people with access.

So, you know, I mean, am I surprised? No, because that’s how this guy operates, right?

NOOR: So I’ve been speaking to a lot of parents and a lot of students in my time here, and one of the main concerns is by shutting these buildings down, people have to travel further to school, and that’s an issue especially in Chicago where there is a lot of violence. Can you talk about the concern that teachers and students have?

LEWIS: Certainly. Well, first of all, to put things in perspective for an audience that does not necessarily know Chicago, there are 59 major gangs in this city, and there are about 650 branches off of those gangs. And what law enforcement did in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s was just kind of arrest all the leaders. So we have kind of leaderless, roaming cliques, as they’re called, or crews, and they kind of set boundaries. And that could literally be from block to block. So when you’re talking about asking children to go four or five blocks, might not sound like a lot, but in effect you could be crossing two or three different gang territories.

NOOR: And so another big concern–and CPS has come out and said that class size will now be recommended at 30. So in a lot of cases class size will increase in these schools. And why is that specifically an issue for–I mean, all urban schools, but especially these schools that are being closed down on the south and west side of Chicago?

LEWIS: So their initial issue was we need to save money, so we’re only going to look at utilization this year. But that doesn’t play so well.

So class sizes of 30 are unacceptable in the lower grades, and actually that would be outside of our contract. It would be a violation. Research has shown that children who have the least do best with smaller class size and individual attention.

However, that doesn’t suit the narrative of corporate school reform. Corporate school reform says, oh, an effective teacher can teach 40, 50, 60, 70 kids. We’ve heard that from Bill Gates, you know, we’ve heard that from Bloomberg, and, of course, that’s the mentality here.

But the problem is that children that have such trauma in their lives–and this is going to be a huge trauma too, to jerk them away from what they know–what we have seen in Chicago is the school closings do more harm than good. We’ve been the victim of school closings for the last 12 years. So if they were effective, and if they did what they were supposed to do, why are we continuing to close schools? You know, there’s just a real disconnect between the reality and what their narrative is.

NOOR: One of the things that CTU has done and you have done that’s made you a hero for a lot of teachers around the country, a lot of activists and parents around the country, is really call out corporate education reform. And so you’ve made enemies of the most powerful entrenched forces in this country. Talk about what that’s like, going up against these forces.

LEWIS: What’s interesting to me is if you read blogs, you read Facebook, you go to wherever you need to go, teachers across the country are complaining about being scapegoated for problems that they’re not responsible for. They are given mandate after mandate that does not help children. And I think the problem is, as teachers and clinicians and paraprofessionals, our main goal is to help children, and when we see that the corporate agenda is actually doing harm, we have to call that out. We have tried to accommodate these people, we have done everything they have ever asked us to do, and yet it is not enough. It will never be enough until they destroy our profession.

And there are those of us that feel that we have to be on the line to protect not only our profession, but the common good of publicly funded public education. There’s a reason we have public education in this country, and it is because it serves the common good.

NOOR: And there was just a recent article related to that topic posted on NBC Chicago. They asked the question why elites don’t think public schools are important in the city, in the city’s future, and it mentioned how people like Rahm Emanuel, the leaders of this city, are not products of public school here. And it also says it’s hard for public school graduates to maintain successful political careers because their backgrounds haven’t enabled them to develop ties with people in money.

LEWIS: If you look at our history, we’ve always had this issue that the people who are of the elites are the people who went to Ivy League universities or that were born wealthy and were schooled in Europe or whatever the fad du jour was. None of that’s changed. The difference is that there was a time when children that went to public school had access that they don’t necessarily have now. Now, they do if they’re fortunate enough to go to a selective enrolment school or magnet schools.

But the real problem that people like Rahm Emanuel and his counterparts have is that public education is nowhere near as horrible as they want to make it out to be. And graduation rates are higher than they’ve ever been. Test scores have been higher than they’ve ever been. But that doesn’t fit the narrative, so they focus in on talking about how terrible they are, terrible they are, because let’s face it, there were jobs that high school dropouts could go to and could make a living that are no longer there because they’ve been completely outsourced.

So the issue becomes: the elite of this country do not want to train people to do jobs. They want to push that down to the public schools, which is why we had vocational ed all through the 20th century, because the plant manufacturers did not want to have to train. They could rely on the public schools. So now we’re still pushing down the work to public schools as opposed to education. So it’s still a, quote-unquote, training ground. But the problem is the jobs really aren’t there. So we have a very disconnected elite from the people who actually live in the city and work in the city and are not fortunate enough to go down that path.

NOOR: A lot of people don’t know about the history of the struggle for public education in Chicago to get it desegregated, to get local school councils. Some people feel it’s going to take another mass movement to stop these school closures and to get parents on the table when it comes to making these decisions with schools and, like, having an elected school board. Do you see what’s happening now with the strike and with this civil disobedience the beginning of another mass movement that can really shake the elite power and elite structure in this city?

LEWIS: Well, power never concedes anything without a demand, as we well know. And it’s one thing to go hat-in-hand begging. It’s another thing to bring the people along as backup.

And the key is parents are very upset about this. They in many cases have not felt that their voices are heard. And if your voices are not heard, then you have to amplify those voices. And I think that parents are feeling much, much more comfortable with actually moving in a different direction.

I saw people yesterday that I haven’t seen in three or four years that were members of local school councils. They’re very clear about what this means. And the key is to involve people whose schools are not involved. That’s how you get mass movement, when people say, well, you know, I’m safe, so I don’t have to think about it. And that’s what has happened in the past, and it’s not happening any longer. So we’re seeing a definite shift.

NOOR: And finally, I want to leave you on a question about the vision that you see for public education. How would you want to see the schools run? What kind of resources would you want teachers to get? What kind of resources would you like buildings to get in this city?

LEWIS: Well, I think if you look at any of the schools in this country that work really well, I think it would be easy to see exactly what they have and transplant that into our schools. So what we would like is to see excellent technology. We would like to see the kinds of professional development that everyone needs, not just teachers, but also administrators and clinicians, paraprofessionals, everyone.

But we’d also like to see a real commitment to the kinds of services our children need, and especially those when we see in the rest of government closing down mental health facilities, closing down health clinics, doing these kinds of things, have these deleterious effects and domino effects. So, clearly the schools are going to have to provide more wraparound services so that children continue to have safe places and safe passage. I think clearly they’re going to have to make a decision on how they resource schools.

And you cannot continue to go back to property tax owners and to say, we need this money, we need this money. We actually support a financial transaction tax that focuses on the Chicago Board of Trade and also the Chicago Mercantile Exchange on their speculative sales. So some small tax would wipe out half of the problems that CPS has.

In addition, we would like to see governance change, because governance also changes resources. If we had an elective, representative school board that actually mirrored local school councils that were made primarily of parents and community members, we would see a completely different focal point.

NOOR: Thank you so much.

LEWIS: You’re welcome. Thank you.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Karen Lewis is a president of Chicago Teachers Union and a chemistry teacher at Martin Luther King College Prep, Chicago, IL.